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Brookline assisted living residents benefit from the power of gardening


After a morning rain, bunches of broccoli, basil, squash and tomato appear to have grown bigger in the backyard garden at Brookline’s Goddard House Assisted Living. Most residents at Goddard House chose to stay inside because of the weather. However, an 81-year-old resident sat on a slightly wet wooden chair alone with his walker and waited patiently for a farmer who comes every Tuesday morning.

“I have been gardening since I was a little boy. Getting my hands into the soil is really relaxing. Seeing things growing is really pleasurable,” said Angelo “Tony” Scordato, who moved to Goddard House a year ago and has participated in gardening there for 10 months.

Guided by a farmer from Green City Growers, Scordato planted two eggplants, four peppers and picked basil plants.

Vegetables “can be used. They are not something just for decoration. When you produce something and somebody can eat, that’s wonderful,” said Scordato.

He picked a pea to eat.

“When you grow it, it always tastes best,” he said.

Brookline’s Goddard House Assisted Living started Growing the Farm at Goddard House two years ago, led by Executive Director John Moniz. Moniz said he grew up on a family farm in Rhode Island that had around 5,000 hogs and has previous work experience with Green City Growers, a local urban agriculture business based in Somerville. He’s run the farming program at Goddard House since its beginning, and last month Moniz won the Program Innovation Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Assisted Living Facilities Association.

“Gardening keeps [residents] active and stimulates them. When you think about it, it really is a universal program where you can cooperate with music, art and fitness,” said Moniz. “Farming is a universal art.

A Farming Project Grows Each Year

“I like to meditate and I find out that working with the soil is a good therapy for me. But I should tell you, when I first came here, I was very unhappy,” said Bridgina Benson, 82, who has lived at Goddard House for four years and has participated in the farming program since it started.

Benson pointed to two farming beds and vegetables. “It’s the best year ever. We have the most beautiful garden. All things are organic and so big,” she said.

Her son, John Benson said, “I know that she loves the farming program, and I think it’s great for my mom to go out and do that.”

According to Moniz, Goddard House has six raised garden for organic vegetable farming. Two are on the patio off the traditional assisted living apartments, and four are in the backyard of Olmsted Place, the memory support program at Goddard House for people with Alzheimer’s and related dementia. He said vegetables are all planted and harvested by residents with help from the farmer, John Neri of Green City Growers.

“We harvested 22 pounds of vegetables last week. That’s pretty amazing,” said Moniz. “Some went to the kitchen and some were given to the staff.”

Moniz said the eventual goal is to sell vegetables harvested by the residents at the nearby Brookline Farmers’ Market.

In addition to planting vegetables, residents feed chickens, and the eggs are given to the staff who complete daily cleaning and maintenance of the chicken coop, according to Moniz. He said the program installed beehives earlier this year and expects honey will be harvested in August.

Moniz worked in a Cambridge assisted living house before Goddard House and, aside from his childhood on a farm, he said he is familiar with gardening programs. “When I came here three years ago, I engaged in conversations with residents about starting a farming project, or actually a gardening project,” he said. “Then it kind of grew.”

Regarding the chicken coop built last year, Moniz recalled a story about his grandparents. His grandmother was diagnosed of Lewy Body disease, a kind of dementia, and gradually became nonverbal. He said his grandfather then built two chicken coops for her.

“It was really needed for my grandmother to go out in a wheelchair, and to watch chickens, and to engage emotionally with [my grandfather] and chickens,” said Moniz. “So, I was like … Can we have chickens here at Goddard House?”

Memory-Loss Residents Need Special Support

“I love the gardening program here. This is my favorite garden that I work actually,” said Neri, the farmer who works for 25 different gardens and smaller farms. “You really feel you are a part of a community when you work here.”

Neri has worked with the Goddard House for last two seasons. He pointed out a special “sensory” farming bed outside the Olmsted Place apartments. Instead of vegetables, the sensory garden has different herbs and flowers with different shapes and smells.

“There is so much going on in the garden. So, it’s difficult for [memory-loss residents] to remember everything they planted,” said Neri. “It’s really nice to see them to come out and touch, and smell, and remember plants’ names in the sensory garden.”

According to Cindy Allard, resident care director of Olmsted Place at Goddard House, there are around 40 memory-loss residents living in the Olmsted apartments. She said gardening gives these residents chances to interact with plants, people and nature.

“Some people have done this all their life, and they would not have any memory loss when they are in the garden. That’s their long-term memory,” said Allard. “They can see the result of their labor. They really can’t do anything wrong. They are outside. It brings them to the back to the earth. When they connect to the earth, it really makes the difference.”

Richard M. Dupee, chief of geriatrics service at Tufts Medical Center, agreed that there are positive effects brought by gardening for aged people, including those who experience memory loss.

“It gives them a reason to get up in the morning. It gives them a reason to communicate with other people. It’s challenging because it requires decision-making. And, it has products that make them proud of,” said Dupee.

In addition to gardening, he suggested other activities for seniors. “Exercise is the key. Also, be sure to continue to challenge yourself: read books, keep updated with newspapers, radio and television, and try puzzles. Most data shows that these activities do slow down the process of dementia like Alzheimer’s.”

Kids, Seniors and Vegetables

Early grade students from the nearby William H. Lincoln School waited in a straight line to walk into the garden of the Olmsted Place apartments. Once inside the garden, they ran immediately to their own farming bed and asked what they would pick today.

After harvesting, residents helped kids make a salad with the fresh lettuce and radish. They sat together to share the food and the joy.

Sandra Wesemann, a parent who is involved in the parent teaching organization at the Lincoln School, said the kids and Goddard House residents get along well.

“Kids are just very gentle and understanding. And, residents are so generous with their sweet words. I’d love coming here because they are so nice to me, too,” said Wesemann. “A parent told me when her daughter came back home, she talked about it all the time.”

In the beginning of June, Goddard House finished an eight-week partnership with the Lincoln School. According to Moniz, it’s the first time Godard House had a partnership in the farming program, and he said the kids will farm next semester.

“Bringing in children is really enlightening for older people. The brain experiences joy when they remember raising their own children, and it brings the memory when they were little kids. It overall creates an environment of joy and fun,” said Dupee.